As mentioned in the previous post, a teacher at the high school where I work has been letting me give Vegan Nutrition 101 presentations to her health class students. It has been an awesome opportunity for me to do a lot of educating and re-educating on the subject as I want to offer these kids the most solid and honest information I can. They are by no means the only ones getting an education out of this though, as the information I am coming across is absolutely blowing my mind. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe it should be commonplace and more “duh” than anything, but as I’ve done the most basic of research I keep coming across more statistics and, quite frankly, revelations regarding the vegan diet that it has become hard to hold back my enthusiasm about this new wealth of knowledge. And I’ve just barely tapped the surface. Of course, this is ultimately going to filter into this blog quite frequently I imagine and I’m toying with the idea of taking a subject each and dedicating an extensive blog posting to it alone (don’t hold me to it though).
Ok, so the reason I wanted to give these vegan nutrition presentations to the kids in the first place was to give a greater balance to the knowledge they will get about the variety, or lack thereof, of ways to eat. Ultimately, diets are simplified and broken down into Carnivorous, Omnivorous, and Herbivorous, of which the Omnivorous diet becomes the default. Anything else (well, not carnivorous of course) becomes a fringe diet and any drawbacks or benefits gets swept aside. Herbivorous diets are popular enough among the human species that they actually get some air time, but not much, despite the overwhelming evidence that eating a greater proportion of plant-based foods is incredibly healthy and acts to not only prevent so many prevalent diseases in our culture, but can actually REVERSE them once they have taken hold. Yes, look it up. So, not only does the healthiest diet (in this specific cultural context) humans can eat get disregarded and swept aside, but the default becomes an omnivorous diet that is highly americanized in proportions and includes the consumption of milk long after we should have been weaned from ANY milk, human or otherwise. So, in short, I want to lend legitimacy to this diet, to give these kids the impetus to consider what they eat, how it affects them and options to eat better.
Before the last presentation I gave, I suddenly realized I had never looked into what their Health and Wellness text books actually say about vegetarianism. I was mildly embarrassed, considering the book might have been quite extensive with its information or even highly supportive of the diet. I had one student show me where vegetarianism is referenced, only to find A SINGLE PAGE dedicated to addressing the diet. Then today, I actually read what it said, again trying to give it the benefit of the doubt. I give you the text…..
VEGETARIAN DIETS (a few types of vegetarian diets are described)
HEALTH BENEFITS Vegetarian diets have some health benefits. Animal products are sources of fats, saturated fats, and cholesterol. A diet low in fats, saturated fats, an cholesterol helps reduce blood cholesterol. You are less likely to develop high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer and colon cancer. It is also easier to maintain a healthful weight. Of course, a person can eat red meat occasionally and still obtain these health benefits.
DISCUSSING CHOICES Teens who choose a vegetarian diet should discuss their choice with their parents or guardians and a physician or dietitian. Teens need to get enough protein, B vitamins, and calcium for growth and development. Foods of animal origins are a source of complete protein.
INCOMPLETE PROTEINS Foods of plant origin are sources of incomplete proteins. Teens who do not eat foods of animal origin must combine different sources of incomplete protein to get enough protein in their diet. Two sources of incomplete protein can be combined to provide all the essential amino acids needed. For example, a teen might eat a vegetable burger and a serving of beans at the same meal, or vegetarian chili topped with cheese.
Because foods of animal origin are the source of vitamin B12, a physician or dietician may recommend vitamin supplements. Dairy foods are the best source of calcium. Teens who eliminate or restrict dairy products must discuss with a physician or dietician how to get enough calcium.
THIS is what passes as nutritional education regarding vegetarian diets at the school where I work and I guarantee we are not the exception. During the last presentation I gave I talked about the meat and dairy industries and how they have their hands deep into the school systems, always pushing their products to the next generations. I pointed out the “drink your milk” Colts poster next to the nurses office and the deals they make with distributors to get milk everywhere. I also know they have great influence in the creation of health text books and although I couldn’t find any specific mention of their involvement in this text, it is PLAIN AS DAY that there is an agenda to this “education”. And if there isn’t, the authors should be admonished for deliberately trying to cause great concern around the vegan diet, even insisting that a teenager MUST see a physician or dietician if they cut out dairy. Honestly, I don’t have the patience right now to address this line by line, but I sure as hell could and it wouldn’t be difficult.
I sent an email to the health teacher today expressing my gratitude for allowing me to present to her classes, but also acknowledging that I struggle with trying to be objective in my presentations and not pushing an agenda of any sort. Education is best when as neutral as possible, but then I read that text and realized that I’m not just filling in the objective education blanks, but actually confronting information soaking with agenda and deliberately creating concern around a diet that not only has SOME health benefits, but is healthy at its base, that is HEALTH PERSONIFIED. Eating a sound vegan diet supplies all the nutrients (save B12, which is another blog post I will address) one needs to develop, grow and flourish as a human being. And contrary to the omnivorous diet, which includes animal proteins – including milk, it has NO drawbacks. Any deficiencies related to the diet are a matter of poor eating choices by the suffering individual, which likely is most often a matter of not eating enough variety. Period. Fruits and vegetables don’t give you heart disease. Nuts and legumes don’t give you cancer. But guess what foods do? Look, eating too much broccoli will not clog your arteries with cholesterol and fats. Animal foods will. Eating a truckload of blueberries and mango won’t feed cancer cells (but I suppose if that’s all you ate you might deal with some fructose issues and probably some diabetes), but milk proteins will.
So tell me, why do we still insist on basing our dietary choices around meat and dairy, while suffering through a few vegetables here and there, getting those down only so you don’t feel guilty eating a pint of simple sugar saturated ice cream, then turn around and shake our heads in disdain at those who eat plant-based diets, considering them dangerous (diets and sometimes the people too!), even educating our kids as such, pulling them further to the side of the omnivorous diets that are the root cause of so many life destroying diseases?
There are reasons, plenty. Some cultural, some ritual, some biological, some hold overs from a less scientifically based time, some economic, some political and it gets tiring trying to draw the lines and connect the dots. It’s where I struggle with talking to these kids about their diets and why they need to completely rethink nutrition and what they are told about it. It’s hard to talk to them about cancer and heart disease when their greater concerns are about not tripping down the stairs in front of that one cute boy or girl. I understand, I get it, but damn I wish someone would have presented this information to me when I was younger. Wait, actually someone did, albeit in the form of an underground music culture, but I got the information none the less. I’m glad I did and I hope I can offer something of the same, giving some sort of redemption to a few of these kids, setting them up to make better dietary choices down the line.
One last thing, I’ve got a pretty good weapon on my side, a pretty convincing argument….my running. I always address the myth of the “weak vegetarian” because it’s still so commonplace and as that text I posted above alludes to, OBVIOUSLY vegans MUST talk to a dietician because eating only plant-based foods is so dangerous and precarious and surely you’d only be able to just survive and in no way be active, strong and healthy. I mean…come on! The kids seem to really enjoy hearing me talk about marathoning and the mileage that goes into the training and, honestly, if that’s the only thing that sticks in their heads after the class is over, I’m sure it’s not the greatest leap to think they’ll be able to connect the dots on their own. This gives me inspiration.